Some 16 years before the announcement of “Diablo Immortal,” Blizzard’s dungeon hunting, hack-and-slash series nearly went on the go. Not on mobile phones – that tech wasn’t there. Rather, Diablo almost came to life on a Nintendo platform. Were it not for a changing of the guard within Blizzard, an equivalent of a “Pokemon”-inspired “Diablo” might have seen release.
Fresh from finishing “Diablo II,” on the hunt for a new project to keep himself busy, Blizzard North programmer Johnathan Morin had an idea. Tinkering with a concept of porting “Diablo I” to Pocket PCs, Morin caught a glimpse of a Game Boy development kit.
Picture a cartoon light bulb flashing over Morin’s head. “Wouldn’t it be cool to make like a ‘Diablo Jr.’ type thing?” remembers Morin. ‘Diablo Junior,’ in Morin’s mind, wasn’t to be a port. “‘Pokemon’ was really big at the time. We could do something similar where you could fight these monsters and get this whole different genre, age group, because ‘Diablo’ was for adults. That was the genesis of it.”
In the early days of Blizzard North, porting titles to handhelds became a specialty. “NFL QB Club” on the Game Gear was one example, making “Diablo” for Game Boy a natural extension for the studio, and the timing worked out.
“Once ‘Diablo II’ finished, other people were rolling on the expansion that came out a year later. During that period, people on that original team who weren’t assigned to the expansion set were looking for their next project. Some people were burned out on ‘Diablo’ and never wanted to work on it again. And some people were not burned out, still liked it. John Morin was in that category,” says Matthew Householder, a producer (among other things) at Blizzard North.
Morin, with a small team of three to four total people, began to dig into the Game Boy’s Z80 assembly language. Even though by 2002/2003 Nintendo’s Game Boy Color was on shelves for years, Morin’s “Diablo” started life on the original black & white console. “I had it running on a Game Boy Color, but it’s very limited. We were just trying to get it to work on the base. Blizzard builds their stuff to work on the base system as opposed to the latest,” explains Morin.
In the four to six months of life given to “Diablo Junior,” Morin and his team debated a number of ideas. One was whether or not to make a turn-based, traditional RPG or something akin to the PC’s hack-and-slash style. If anything held influence, that was Nintendo’s massive success with “Pokemon.” Imagine “Diablo” split off into multiple cartridges, either with different character classes (a Knight on one, a Mage on another) or varying monster types to find/collect/trade.
“Look at how successful ‘Pokemon’ is. How can we do something similar? There weren’t a lot of games on the Game Boy like that at the time. We could bring the ‘Diablo’ universe to Nintendo. I think it would have done awesome,” says Morin. Note: No one told or approached Nintendo about the project; “Diablo Junior” didn’t make it that far into development.
However, a cloud hung over the project. That was sister studio Blizzard South and corporate owners Vivendi. Householder said Blizzard North called Blizzard South, “the eye of Sauron.” Just out of view of that eye existed “Diablo Junior.” No one at Blizzard South was aware. And then, rumors of a merge of studios.
“I was on vacation at the time. I went to the DiabloII.net website, which was a fan site, and read that [Blizzard North founders] Dave Brevik, Max Schaefer, and Eric Schaefer had resigned. I thought that’s a great April Fools joke, but it was June. As I was flying back on the airplane, I had to borrow someone’s cell phone to talk to the Blizzard South people,” remembers Householder.
With new ownership, those from Blizzard South/Vivendi didn’t share in Morin’s Game Boy enthusiasm, potentially because no one informed them of the project. “Blizzard South came in and they were asking what everybody was working on. Oh yeah, I’m working on this Game Boy game! … They had no idea. They’re like nope, sorry, we’re going to cancel that,” says Morin.
“They probably looked at the Game Boy and said it’s not connected to the internet, How are we going to make money off of that? There were no mobile games that were connected to the web. The reason ‘Diablo’ was such a huge hit was because of Battle.net,” says Householder.
Morin referenced Blizzard’s stance on “hyper-profitability,” a method of producing a handful of games designed to draw in long term profits. “Making a game on Nintendo back then, you’re profit margin wasn’t very high because you have to pay a lot for cartridges and a lot to Nintendo,” says Morin. “Diablo Junior’s” fate was sealed.
A ‘Diablo’ prototype for the Game Boy leaked onto the internet in the late ‘00s, resembling an unfinished port of the first game in the series, complete with an isometric view. That’s not what Morin and his team worked on. Morin’s version used a top-down perspective.
He wasn’t sure of the leaked version’s source when asked, but his portable ‘Diablo’ was to be completely original, and nowhere near complete, just a demo. “I had enough to where I could show a demo. I could show the guy walking around in the world,” says Morin.
Looking back on the project, Morin believes he had a profitable idea, it just wasn’t the right fit for the studio during that period. “They’ve gone into consoles and stuff like that. At the time, they were purely PC. I was doing something outside their comfort zone.”
And, with “Diablo Immortal” due soon, Morin notes, “I think I was ahead of my time.”